Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The war for the Mediterranean

Simplified version of the Hereford Mappa Mundi (c. 1300). Picture source: Atlantis Maps.com
CNN reports that the number of refugees from the Syrian civil war now exceeds 2 million. Yet Classicfm radio news this morning says that people are showing some reluctance to give money to charities working in that area. I can understand why, since I fear we've already been paying involuntarily through our taxes to create and inflame this disaster.

The US certainly has, according to Barry Ritholtz, for the last 6 or 7 years. But I suspect that the UK, ever keen to show that it still has a real pair, not Neuticles, has been assisting, as it did with the clandestine insertion of an SAS unit into Libya to help oust Gaddafi. The Syrian government has admitted responsibility for shooting down a Turkish warplane it says was violating its airspace, but denies firing an artillery shell into Turkey and rebels in Damascus have allegedly confessed that they were the ones who let off the chemical bomb that nearly precipitated direct US military intervention.

I think history will judge that Secretary of State John "we know" Kerry's reputation is now toast, but it hasn't dissuaded him from a hawkish insistence that Obama can go ahead even if the Congressional vote goes against him. And we now hear that the ruthlessly ambitious and pseudo-affable Mayor of London is proposing a second vote in Parliament so MPs can be given the chance to get it right this time.

Those who set a fire cannot be certain of controlling its spread. Burning round the eastern Mediterranean, the flames could tickle other countries too, as Russia becomes involved in the new Great Game. The same tactics that have destabilised the Arab Street could be used against nations on the northern coast of the Middle Sea, which have been suffering as a result of the overbearing rule of the EU and the predations of international banking. Greece for example, with its high youth unemployment, history of internecine strife and 8,500 miles of coastline, might be a tempting target for subversion and infiltration.

You can lose power through overreaching. I used to have a postwar edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and one of its articles traced the roots of the Reformation to the attempt by mediaeval Popes to maintain and strengthen their control while Western countries settled down and their kings grew stronger. Is the US risking upsetting the balance of power by trying to secure the Levant?

Conversely, the collapse of the Soviet Union has allowed Russia to get a better grip on its affairs and its developing energy resources are giving it something to bargain with rather than invade. (She also has a very promising agricultural position: 117 people per km2 of arable land, versus 179 for the US and - dangerous, this - 1,077 for the UK.) The potential economic power is seen in control of gas supplies to Northern Europe, but also perhaps in the events that led to the fall of Greek Premier Kostas Karamanlis in 2008 - he was negotiating with Russia for their South Stream gas pipeline, a rival to the EU/US Nabucco line. There are even allegations of an assassination plot against Karamanlis and foreign threats against the Greek government.

It doesn't take much to drop a country into chaos. It's said that a satphone and $20,000 can get you an African armed revolutionary movement. A organized minority can overthrow and seize a nation. For example, in the Soviet Union of 1986 only 10% were in the Communist Party, of which more than half were industrial workers and farmers; in pre-Purge 1933, maybe 2.5%; in 1918 just after the Revolution, a mere 200,000 members or one-fifth of one per cent.

In Greece, the average electoral turnout for the Communist KKE has been over 6% since 2000, and back in 1958 it was 24%. The average of c. 470,00 votes (not that voting means much to Communists, and some of the most dangerous will stay in cover) represents around 5% of the population aged over 15. The KKE vote halved between May and June last year (from 536,072 to 277,122) and one has to wonder whether there may be some foreign support for some of the alternative parties; but Greeks are quite capable of quarrelling without the help of outsiders. The point is that the politics there are volatile, and there are lots of hormonal youngsters to recruit for one cause or another.

Not that Greece is the only southern European country ripe for trouble. Think of Italy and Spain; and the Balkans. A direct confrontation between major global players seems unlikely, at this stage; but goodness knows what is going on in the world of Spy vs. Spy. And it's not only the US Sixth Fleet aiming to "keep the peace" in the Eastern Med: Russia is reported to be sending a missile cruiser and an anti-submarine ship.

Russia still has only one port that is ice-free all year round, and that is on the Baltic and separated from the Mother Country by the land of three other nations. But she controls land joining the Caspian and Black Sea, and has ethnic Slavic connections with Bulgaria, Macedonia and even currently Turkified Slavs in Anatolia. Oh, for free naval passage through the Hellespont and a base in Alexandroupoli, or even Thessaloniki.

The sides are getting too close to each other. A little less car use and turning down the central heating a bit might save us from unintended consequences in a very perilous game in the centre of the world.

UPDATE (3 Sep 2013): Steve Quayle says the plan is to use Syria to break Russia's plans for gas exports in the region (htp: Autonomous Mind).

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